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Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome


What is acute respiratory distress syndrome?

Acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS) is a sudden and very serious illness that affects your lungs. ARDS occurs when the lungs become swollen and filled with fluid. The fluid causes severe shortness of breath and may lead to respiratory failure. Respiratory failure means you cannot breathe well enough to get oxygen to the cells of your body. ARDS is an emergency and immediate treatment is needed.

What causes ARDS?

Sepsis (blood infection) is the most common cause of ARDS. Other factors that may cause ARDS include the following:

  • Severe bruising of the lungs, possibly from a hard blow to the chest
  • A reaction to medicines, such as nitrofurantoin, or an overdose of morphine, methadone, or heroin
  • Inhaling vomited food or liquids or harmful gases, such as chlorine
  • Water in your lungs from a near drowning experience
  • Severe bleeding for which a blood transfusion is needed
  • Other illnesses, such as pneumonia and acute pancreatitis

What are the signs and symptoms of ARDS?

Signs and symptoms usually start within 24 to 48 hours after injury to the lungs. You may have any of the following:

  • Trouble breathing and shortness of breath
  • Fast heartbeat
  • Pale or blue-colored skin and nails or cold skin

How is ARDS diagnosed?

You may need one or more of the following tests:

  • Blood gases: This is also called an arterial blood gas, or ABG. Blood is taken from an artery (blood vessel) in your wrist, arm, or groin. Your blood is tested for the amount of oxygen and carbon dioxide in it. The results can tell caregivers how well your lungs are working.
  • Blood tests: You may need blood taken to give healthcare providers information about how your body is working. The blood may be taken from a vein in your hand, arm, or IV.
  • Chest x-ray: This is a picture of your lungs and heart. Caregivers use it to see how your lungs and heart are doing. Caregivers may use the x-ray to look for signs of infection like pneumonia, or to look for collapsed lungs. Chest x-rays may show tumors, broken ribs, or fluid around the heart and lungs.
  • Computerized tomography scan: This test is also called a CT or CAT scan. An x-ray machine uses a computer to take pictures of your lungs. You may be given dye through an IV in your vein before the pictures are taken. The dye helps the lungs, heart, and blood vessels show up better in the pictures. People who are allergic to shellfish (lobster, crab, or shrimp) may be allergic to this dye. Tell your healthcare provider if you are allergic to any of these.

How is ARDS treated?

You may have one or more of the following treatments:

  • Ventilator: This machine will support your breathing while your lungs are healing. You will have an endotracheal tube (ET tube) in your mouth or nose that will attach to a ventilator. Oxygen can then be given to you through the ventilator.
  • Medicines:
    • Antianxiety medicine: This medicine may be given to decrease anxiety and help you feel calm and relaxed.
    • Muscle relaxers help decrease pain and muscle spasms.
    • Antibiotics: This medicine is given to help treat or prevent an infection caused by bacteria.
    • Pain medicine: Caregivers may give you medicine to take away or decrease your pain.
      • Do not wait until the pain is severe to ask for your medicine. Tell caregivers if your pain does not decrease. The medicine may not work as well at controlling your pain if you wait too long to take it.
      • Pain medicine can make you dizzy or sleepy. Prevent falls by calling a caregiver when you want to get out of bed or if you need help.

What are the risks of ARDS?

ARDS is a life-threatening illness. Too much ventilator pressure can cause leaks or holes in your lungs. You may get an infection or the other organs in your body may not work as well.

Where can I find support and more information?

  • American Lung Association
    1301 Pennsylvania Ave. NW
    Washington , DC 20004
    Phone: 1- 202 - 785-3355
    Phone: 1- 800 - 548-8252
    Web Address:
  • National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute
    Health Information Center
    P.O. Box 30105
    Bethesda , MD 20824-0105
    Phone: 1- 301 - 592-8573
    Web Address:

When should I contact my healthcare provider?

Contact your healthcare provider if:

  • You have a fever.
  • You are lightheaded, dizzy, sweaty, or nauseated after you take your medicine.
  • You have increased swelling in your legs, feet, or abdomen.
  • You are wheezing (high-pitched noise when you breathe).
  • You are coughing up bloody sputum.
  • You have questions or concerns about your condition or care.

When should I seek immediate help?

Seek help immediately or call 911 if:

  • You have trouble breathing or shortness of breath.
  • You have a fast heart beat and your chest hurts.
  • You feel so dizzy that you have trouble standing up.
  • Your lips, skin or nail beds are blue.

Care Agreement

You have the right to help plan your care. Learn about your health condition and how it may be treated. Discuss treatment options with your caregivers to decide what care you want to receive. You always have the right to refuse treatment. The above information is an educational aid only. It is not intended as medical advice for individual conditions or treatments. Talk to your doctor, nurse or pharmacist before following any medical regimen to see if it is safe and effective for you.

© 2016 Truven Health Analytics Inc. Information is for End User's use only and may not be sold, redistributed or otherwise used for commercial purposes. All illustrations and images included in CareNotes® are the copyrighted property of A.D.A.M., Inc. or Truven Health Analytics.

The above information is an educational aid only. It is not intended as medical advice for individual conditions or treatments. Talk to your doctor, nurse or pharmacist before following any medical regimen to see if it is safe and effective for you.